‘duh duh duh duh…’ Led Zep win BBC riff poll- but how do you define what a riff is?So Led Zep won the best ever riff with their defining chug for Whole Lotta Love- it’s difficult, for once, to argue with this as Jimmy Page on this fantastic chug pretty well defines riff.

If you had to explain the grunting, gonzoid appeal of the riff to an alien species from deep space, trying to put into words that guttural, clanking, primal chug then language would not be enough and Jimmy would have to be brought into the equation and his timeless riff played. Duh duh duh duh duh….

For me the definition of a riff is not something that you can hum, that’s a melody-a very different scurrying beast, nope a riff is something you have to sing as ‘Duh Duh’ and is repeated round and round, cranking up the hypnotic excitement – the song can take a break from the riff but everyone knows that it’s going to come back with a fury and it’s that repition that is also the key- that hypnotic alinement that puts the chaos of the universe into a hypnotic order that is the attraction of the RIFF.

In many ways the Kinks invented it with You Really Got Me which sounds as searingly thrilling now as when it was first released- these days it would be almost inconceivable that any radio station would play anything as raw and urgent as this and the song would have been lost to cult history but in 1964, oddly, radio and TV were more open to the adrenalised thrill of the cranked guitar and the superb tension of the song and was a huge international hit.

The Kinks proto riff changed the way that music could be made and the riff, despite existing in eternity before that, was finally defined for the electric excitement of the cranked blues via a British sensibility that decided the form for ever. All Jimmy Page diid was take this idea and hone it down to perfection for Whole Lotta Love- adding a funkiness and swing to the DUH DUH.

The genius of Jimmy Page is not his famed six finger complexity but his simplicity- the way he can make 2 or 3 notes sound like a symphony.

Personally my favourite riffs are embedded in songs of groups like Big Black on their song Kerosene where the unrelenting nature is taken to the extreme or even shifted onto the bass guitar like Peaches by the Stranglers.

Despite everything the riff is not a dying art with the breakout group of the year, Royal Blood, creating a whole albums worth of killer riffs that safeguard the future of a very simplistic but perfect capturing of the gonzoid thrill spirit of rock n roll.

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Award winning journalist and boss of Louder Than War. In a 30 year music writing career, John was the first to write about bands such as Stone Roses and Nirvana and has several best selling music books to his name. He constantly tours the world with Goldblade and the Membranes playing gigs or doing spoken word and speaking at music conferences.


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